Use of glacial fronts by narwhals (Monodon monoceros) in West Greenland

Kristin L Laidre, Twila Moon, Donna D W Hauser, Richard McGovern, Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, Rune Dietz, Ben Hudson

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Abstract

Glacial fronts are important summer habitat for narwhals (Monodon monoceros); however, no studies have quantified which glacial properties attract whales. We investigated the importance of glacial habitats using telemetry data from n = 15 whales tagged in September of 1993, 1994, 2006 and 2007 in Melville Bay, West Greenland. For 41 marine-terminating glaciers, we estimated (i) narwhal presence/absence, (ii) number of 24 h periods spent at glaciers and (iii) the fraction of narwhals that visited each glacier (at 5, 7 and 10 km) in autumn. We also compiled data on glacier width, ice thickness, ice velocity, front advance/retreat, area and extent of iceberg discharge, bathymetry, subglacial freshwater run-off and sediment flux. Narwhal use of glacial habitats expanded in the 2000s probably due to reduced summer fast ice and later autumn freeze-up. Using a generalized multivariate framework, glacier ice front thickness (vertical height in the water column) was a significant covariate in all models. A negative relationship with glacier velocity was included in several models and glacier front width was a significant predictor in the 2000s. Results suggest narwhals prefer glaciers with potential for higher ambient freshwater melt over glaciers with silt-laden discharge. This may represent a preference for summer freshwater habitat, similar to other Arctic monodontids.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20160457
Number of pages7
JournalBiology Letters
Volume12
Issue number10
Early online date26 Oct 2016
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016

Keywords

  • narwhal
  • Greenland
  • glacier

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